Saturday, December 29, 2012

The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks

Lev Kuleshov
Every student of film is no doubt familiar with the name Lev Kuleshov and his famous Kuleshov effect.  Less well known among film students, however, are Kuleshov's actual films.  When many think of 1920s Soviet cinema, the great Eisensteinian classics, like the Battleship Potemkin, immediately come to mind.  Yet, despite the significance of such works, silent Soviet film was much more than revolutionary epics.

Kulsheov's 1924 comedy The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks is a prime example of this.  The first feature produced by Kulsheov with the actors who attended his Experimental Cine-Laboratory, it is enjoyable, funny, visually captivating, and (for its time) technically sophisticated.  It is also an underrated work that justifiably deserves greater attention.  It is here where Kuleshov puts his theories of montage, editing, and acting together with an exciting and humorous plot to form something truly entertaining.

The film, co-written by Nikolai Aseyev and Vsevolod Pudovkin, begins in the Cleveland suburb of Brecksville, Ohio, a quaint Midwestern locale where Mr. John S. West (played by Porfiri Podobed), the Harold Lloyd-esque president of the YMCA, prepares to journey to the Soviet Union with his trusty cowboy sidekick Jeddy (future Soviet filmmaker Boris Barnet).

Mr. John S. West

The cowboy Jeddy

His wife, Madge, is devastated over her husband's departure.

Mrs. Madge West

Her concern for his safety is only intensified when the mail arrives and he receives a note and some magazines from a G. L. Collagan in New York warning him about the "barbarous state of Russia today."

The postal worker.

The archetypal Bolshevik as seen in a New York magazine.

Mrs. West expressing her concern.

However, Mr. West casts aside such fears and heads to Moscow with Jeddy as his bodyguard.

Mr. West goes to Moscow... in his very 1920s-style raccoon coat.

However, one of his bags is stolen and ends up in the hands of some less-than-friendly characters, including the sinister Shban (Vsevolod Pudovkin), the One-Eyed Man (Sergei Komarov), the Dandy (Leonid Obolensky), and the Countess von Saks (played by Aleksandra Khokhlova, Kuleshov's wife and muse).


The One-Eyed Man

The Countess von Saks

The Dandy with Countess von Saks in the background.

As they scheme and resolve to "squeeze  every last dollar" out of Mr. West, the cowboy Jeddy becomes separated from his friend and soon finds himself being pursued by the Moscow police in a madcap Wild West-style chase sequence that involves fast editing, daring stunts, and stunning high-wire acts.  It also includes a beautiful shot of the Cathedral of Christ the Savior (prior to its 1931 demolition by Stalin).  In the end, Jeddy ends up literally falling into the company of his old friend, Ellie (Vera Lopatina), an American girl (now living in Moscow) who he recused from a mugging.


Jeddy flees as the Cathedral of Christ the Savior stands proudly in the background.

Mr. West, meanwhile, finds refuge in the offices of an American company in Moscow, where the typists remind him of his wife.

Meanwhile, Shban and his gang manage to track down Mr. West.  Here Shban returns to the briefcase to West and recounts a highly fictionalized version of how he "rescued" it from those "dastardly Bolsheviks."  Then, upon finding the case included a red-white-and-blue sock, Shban claimed to have tipped his hat, realizing it was American.

Shban giving instructions to his cabal near an Expressionist-looking tree.

Shban tipping his hat to America.

Shban then informs West that he is being followed and must escape with him at once.

In the meantime, Jeddy is taken into jail by the Moscow police and Ellie bails him out.  She informs the local police officer of Jeddy's past heroism (presented to the audience as a flashback) and explains how his boss back in America misinformed him that "Russians were savages" (accompanied by a scene illustrating the accompanying stereotype).

Images from the "savage Russian" sequence.

As Ellie works to release Jeddy, Shban takes Mr. West on a "tour of Moscow," passing off a rundown building as a "university" and rubble as the site of the Bolshoi Theatre, all to illustrate the savagery of the Bolsheviks.  An astonished Mr. West is then treated to tea "Soviet style" with Shban and the Countess, who tries to flirt (and even play footsy with) an embarrassed Mr. West.  Podobed, Pudovkin and especially Khokhlova seem to have had a lot of fun performing this sequence.  Khokhlova's facial expressions in this scene and in subsequent others are especially fun to watch, adding to the humor of the scenario and the sinisterly funny character of the criminal clique.

Returning to the American office, meanwhile, Ellie and Jeddy discover that West had left in the "company of a very peculiar gentleman."  The two then decide to enlist the Soviet police to help them find Mr. West.

Back at the criminals' headquarters, Mr. West is asleep but soon receives a surprise when "Bolshevik revolutionaries" storm the run-down building.  In reality, these "revolutionaries" are "played" by extra bandits, but they manage to play on the worst fears of Mr. West who attempts to fight them as a "true American."

After trapping Mr. West in a fur coat, the gang then tie up the countess, making her appear as a "hostage" to "Bolshevik savagery," much to the horror of Mr. West.

The Countess and Mr. West are then put onto a mock trial conducted by "Bolshevik tribunal."  This wild sequence with its editing, acting, and striking use of chiaroscuro lighting call to mind the French crime serials of Louis Feuillade as well as the films of the German Expressionists.

A masked Shban, reminiscent of Feuillade's Fantômas.

In the end, the "Bolsheviks" sentence West and the Countess to death.  The two are then imprisoned in an Expressionist-style cell, with the shadows of the window muntins cast on West like a spider's web, as if to further emphasize the fact that he is ensnared in the criminals' scheme.   He is then instructed that both he and the Countess can only be saved at the cost of thousands of dollars.  Desperately West pays the money and is "rescued" through the chimney of the house, covering his face with soot.

In the end, the criminals' plot is foiled by the Soviet police, Mr. West is recused, and the four thieves are arrested.

"Now this is what a real Bolshevik looks like."

The four criminals behind bars.

Mr. West is then treated on a real tour of Moscow led by the Soviet police chief.  The University is intact as is the Bolshoi Theatre and both are flourishing. The American visitor is so impressed that he immediately telegraphs his wife and informs her to burn all magazines depicting the Russians as "savages" and to instead place a portrait of Lenin in his office.

Mr. West is a fun and entertaining film.  Though it is clearly pro-Soviet, it has also been labeled by some incorrectly as an anti-American work that ironically (and some might even say shamefully) "steals" from American films of the day.  However, such a characterization misses crucial points of Kuleshov's work and his intentions behind it.

None of the American characters depicted in the film are shown in a bad or negative light.  They are all likeable and fun characters to which any audience (whether in New York or Moscow) can easily relate.  Also, the inclusion of elements such as the cowboy, Mr. West's raccoon coat, his Harold Lloyd-esque glasses, and even his red-white-and-blue socks seem to indicate a certain sympathy, even affinity or love, on the part of the filmmaker towards the American people and American culture.  This especially makes sense when one considers the fact that Kuleshov himself was openly pro-American and a self-professed fan of American Westerns.  If anything, the film is more of an anti-stereotype film, created with the intention of dispelling common myths in the West regarding the Soviet Union and its people as a "barbarous, Red horde."

Though the film is currently not available online in full, it is available on DVD as part of the four-disc Landmarks of Early Soviet Cinema set, fully restored with a new score by the acclaimed silent film composer Robert Israel.